The Peabody Essex Museum kicks off a traveling retrospective of T.C. Cannon, a seminal figure in contemporary Native American art.
The work of one of the most interesting, visionary Native American artists of the 20th century is being celebrated with a exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. “T.C. Cannon: On the Edge of America” (through June 10), which will go to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., and the National Museum of the American Indian after closing at the PEM, is the first traveling retrospective of Cannon’s work since 1990. It includes over 30 major paintings (out of a total of around 50 that the artist completed before his death in a car crash at the age of 31 in 1978), supplemented by drawings, woodblock and linocut prints, poems, and musical recordings. Together, the nearly 90 works on view reveal a masterful painter and a voracious mind fully engaged not only with his own Native American culture and history but with the diversity of mainstream American culture as it went through the transformative turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s.
Cannon is best known for vibrantly colorful canvases that portray American Indians both as they were in traditional times and as they are now—sometimes within the same picture. With a strong component of satire and humor, his paintings juxtapose traditional imagery with the contemporary scene, and his Indians are conflicted figures who seem to inhabit two worlds, sometimes incongruously or awkwardly but always with pride and verve. Cannon himself did originate “on the edge of America”—he was born in a small farming community in southern Oklahoma, the son of a Kiowa father and a Caddo mother, and was given the Kiowa name Pai-doung-u-day (meaning “one who stands in the sun”) and the English name Tommy Wayne Cannon (though he would be known later on as “T.C.” rather than “T.W.”).
After graduating from high school in 1964, he went to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, which had been founded only two years before and was funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. In high school, Cannon had attracted attention for his drawing skills; here he was exposed to the Euro-American art tradition as well as to a Native American artistic renaissance that was getting underway. One of Cannon’s teachers was Fritz Scholder, a pioneer of the new sensibility in Native American art; Cannon’s work bears certain resemblances to Scholder’s—its emphasis on portraiture and its satirical take on mixed identities. But it is also very strongly influenced by non-Native art, especially Matisse, whose color ideas and compositional schemes are sometimes clearly visible in Cannon’s work. In fact, Cannon’s Collector #3 (1974) is an out-and-out homage to the French modernist master; a bare-breasted Indian odalisque reclining on a Navajo rug in wallpapered room, with artistic attention duly lavished on the textiles. Other important influences were Van Gogh and, from his own era, Robert Rauschenberg.
In 1966, while still in school, Cannon made a splash with his painting Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues, which showed a Navajo man juxtaposed with two small portraits of themselves in the foreground. The figures are wearing sunglasses and smoking cigarettes, which gives them a contemporary air. On the wall is written the word “Dineh,” the Navajos’ word for themselves. This painting is considered to have kicked off the New Indian Art movement.
In 1968, as the art world generally joined in the counterculture’s rejection of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Cannon, inspired by the Kiowa warrior tradition, enlisted in the Army and spent a year as a paratrooper in Vietnam; for his service in the Tet Offensive he won two Bronze Stars. He was disillusioned by his experiences there and channeled those feelings into his work, which was verbal and musical as well as visual. In a song lyric intended as a companion piece for Mama and Papa, he sang, “well i’ve been out there where the v.c. [Viet Cong] stay/i write home most every day/it don’t seem to ease my pain at all/‘cause i long for the sand and the piñon trees/sheep manure up to my knees…/oh mama, papa’s got those blues again/oh mama, papa’s got the shiprock blues again.” A drawing in the show, On Drinkin’ Beer in Vietnam in 1967, shows two Indians in uniform, each with a Plains warrior-style feather in his hair.
After his return home, Cannon resumed his career, rising to higher and higher heights in the art world. In 1972, he was invited by the National Collection of Fine Arts (now part of the Smithsonian) to do a joint exhibition with his old teacher Scholder, to be called “Two American Painters.” The show was wildly successful and went on a world tour, and then New York dealer Jean Aberbach bought most of Cannon’s work right off the museum walls and signed him to her gallery.
Success didn’t spoil Cannon, and throughout the ’70s he produced ever-more-complex works. In his incredible Epochs of Plains History (1976–77), Cannon encompassed myth, history, and present-day life into one panoramic canvas and put it all into cosmic context by bookending the composition with super-sized, symbolically enhanced images of the moon and sun. A rainbow, a bald eagle, a legendary white buffalo, and figures from a Plains ledger-style drawing compete for attention with warriors from a wolf society and brightly-clad figures from past and present. At the far right is a contemporary Indian in jeans, Western shirt, cowboy hat, and sunglasses, who bears a strong resemblance to a self-portrait Cannon did in 1975. In that painting, Self-Portrait in the Studio, the similarly-clad artist sprawls in a chair, relaxed but somehow confrontational, with a picture window framing a mountainous desert landscape in back of him, an expensive-looking Southwestern rug beneath his feet, and pictures from his collection on the wall. Here is the confident Native American artist-collector of today, surrounded by the symbols of his art and his success. It was all to be cut tragically short just a few years later, and who knows what Cannon would have gone on to produce, what thoughts he would have expressed about the changes in the Native American world and the art world that have taken place since then? He may have been born at the edge of America, but by now it should be clear that T.C. Cannon belongs at the center.
By John Dorfman